American showman Buffalo Bill’s famous Wild West spectacular toured extensively throughout Europe even rolling up on our doorstep.
For years its visit to Chesterfield has been shrouded in speculation about where the entertainers pitched camp, with some claiming it was in a field on the edge of Queen’s Park.
Hotshot sleuths at Dronfield Light Opera Group have solved the mystery, with a little help from the Derbyshire Times and Chesterfield Herald. The show was staged at the top of Jawbones Hill on Derby Road in October 1903 and, according to the newspaper report, the event was so momentous that schoolchildren were given the day off.
Fast forward 110 years and a five-mile journey up the road to Dronfield where the sharp-shooting spectacular is being re-enacted in a momentous production by the light opera group.
For the first time in its 41-year history, the company is staging the musical Annie Get Your Gun - the tale of little sureshot Annie Oakley’s aim to steal the heart and crown of champion sharpshooter Frank Butler.
Katie Marshall-Preece directs an imaginative production at the Civic Centre this week where the company puts its mark on the Irving Berlin classic.
It’s very much a show within a show. Performers are already on stage when the audiences take their seats, busying themselves by applying make-up, sweeping the floor and checking costumes.
Neat touches throughout the show include mask-wearing children playing life-sized marionettes and four girls standing on the aisle steps with balloons on their heads which are burst by the leading lady’s firepower.
Choreographer Andrea Powell puts her stamp on the production. There’s some great tap-dancing from Rachel Cooper Bassett and Richard Granger as Winnie Tate and her sweetheart Tommy as well as Annie’s little sisters, played by Megan Young and Ellie Ashmore.
Rival show boss Pawnee Bill in the original script becomes Pawnee Belle in this production and Karen Thompson revels in her role.
Scene changes are flagged up by David Allen as show MC Charlie Davenport barking orders and signs hung up at the side of the stage.
Heading a big cast, Jeannie Saxton throws all her energies into giving a magical characterisation of Annie Oakley. She prowls the stage with a slight stoop as though she’s burdened with the weight of the gun she carries, the timing of her wise cracks are as accurate as her rifle aim and she generates heart-warming rapport with her leading man, especially evident in the stand-out song Anything Goes.
Jeannie doesn’t have the most powerful of singing voices and at the performance last night (Thursday, May 21) it was a struggle to hear some of her songs against the might of a nine-piece orchestra, led by director Karen Cook.
Andy Throssell’s singing voice is well matched to the role of omnipotent Frank Butler, the champion sharpshooter whose glory is snatched away by the fastest female gun in the West.
There’s some delighful characterisations in the supporting roles, namely Clair Stokes as the interfering Dolly Tate, David Pierce as show impresario Buffalo Bill Cody, Julie Ballin as hotel boss Wilson and Matthew Humpage as Annie’s brother Little Jake.
Costumes are exquisite and a great deal of thought has been put into dressing the stage which is dominated by a chuckwagon.
Annie Get Your Gun continues its run at the Civic Hall until Saturday, May 25, 2013.